Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

How Soft the Lining
Bad Habit Productions
Review by Josh Garstka

Elle Borders and Bridgette Hayes
Photo by Paul Cantillon,
Kirsten Greenidge's newest play, How Soft the Lining, is a swift reconstruction of two powerful women who bridged a cavernous racial gap during the Civil War era. This world premiere production, directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, explores the bond between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, a black businesswoman whom Mary hired as her exclusive White House dressmaker. Early on, Mary asks Elizabeth if they are, indeed, friends—a question Greenidge spends ninety minutes unpacking. Could the First Lady of the United States truly relate to a freed black woman born into servitude?

The historical record suggests Mary valued Elizabeth's counsel above other Washington allies. She was a hard worker, a shrewd businesswoman, and an unlikely confidant for Mrs. Lincoln. Appearances are crucial to Greenidge's retelling: Mary would take great pride in her public look. Many in town found her extravagant spending ostentatious, especially in wartime, but she insists on having Elizabeth design more lavish gowns for her.

While we follow the women's relationship, the play weaves in vignettes of Mary and Elizabeth's separate—and uncomfortably different—childhoods. "I'm going to go places," Mary declares as a young girl, and we watch her cajole her childhood friend into secretly trying on the latest fashion—the bustle (a sin!). Greenidge immediately contrasts this with the heartbreaking moment when Elizabeth—Lizzy as a young girl—receives her first apron and is consigned to service at age four. She's asked to watch a sleeping baby, and is scolded by the white housekeeper when she knocks over the cradle in a panic.

The play gains its tension from these rival paths to womanhood. Move forward, Mary's childhood housekeeper Sally tells the future First Lady. "That's what a woman should learn to do best." It is advice that means something far different for Mary's privileged upbringing than for Lizzy, who bargained a deal to purchase her own freedom by earning $1,200 from her dressmaking. The loss of their children, only a year apart, is where the two women find common ground. We see Elizabeth comfort Mary after Willie Lincoln, her 12-year-old son, succumbs to typhoid fever. Elizabeth understands the pain, having mourned her own son George's death on the battlefield.

But even in their commiseration, their experiences diverge. Traveling together years after the president's assassination, Mary refuses to stay on a segregated hotel floor unless she can room beside her counterpart. In the aftermath, Mary describes this insult to Elizabeth as a personal injustice against herself—a cue by Greenidge for Elizabeth to fully unleash a blistering retort about the price she pays as an American black woman. It's a set-up we expected. The play earnestly wants to make a statement on what unites and divides these women, but this eleventh-hour showdown swings uneasily between the two without fully resolving.

Five ensemble members embody a variety of influential characters, including some gender- and race-blind casting. The direction and costuming don't always clarify right away whom the actors are portraying, and some actors differentiate their characters better than others. Lizzie Milanovich cannily switches from a rascally Tad Lincoln to a snobbish male hotel concierge. And Jade Guerra confidently plays three distinctive black women: Lizzy's mother, Mary's childhood housekeeper, and a flustered young worker the adult Elizabeth hires for her business.

As Mary, Bridgette Hayes plays up the First Lady's increasingly deeper insecurities. She understands how the town views her spending habits, but she also can't bear to look underdressed. Employing a rich Kentucky accent, Hayes reveals Mary's many moods—undisciplined, self-absorbed, yet courageous—in a culture that condescends to her. And Elle Borders makes a confident, grounded Elizabeth, quietly firm as she makes a deal for her freedom. She does sometimes feel like she's holding back; her final confrontation doesn't feel as impassioned as it could.

Ultimately, Greenidge's work shines a light on the real Elizabeth, who built her own future with astonishing success in 1860s America. How Soft the Lining follows the broad outline of her and Mary Todd Lincoln's biographies, and is at its best when it calls out the still-pervasive opportunity gap for black Americans and for women. Were they friends, Mary asks, and we know the question is more complex than even this play can answer.

How Soft the Lining is presented by Bad Habit Productions through November 20, 2016, at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston, MA. Tickets are $28 and can be purchased at or by phone at 617-933-8600.

Elle Borders, Elizabeth Keckley
Margaret Clark, Ensemble
Bridgette Hayes, Mary Todd Lincoln
Gabriel Graetz, Ensemble
Jade Guerra, Ensemble
Lizzie Milanovich, Ensemble
Kaya Simmons, Ensemble

Creative Team:
M. Bevin O'Gara, Director
Meg O'Brien, Stage Manager
Christine Truong, Assistant Stage Manager
Steven E Emanuelson, Dialect Coach
Phaedra Scott, Dramaturg
Kathryn Schondek, Costume Designer
Margaret Clark, Fight Choreographer
Sam Filson Parkinson, Properties Designer
PJ Strachman, Lighting Designer
Andrew Duncan Will, Sound Designer
Rebecca Lehrhoff-Joy, Scenic Designer
Ben Lieberson, Technical Director

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